Challenge the narratives of civil society ‘demonization’


Civil society groups have been subject to “widespread demonization” recent years, and 2015 was a “dismal one for civil society around the world,” according to a report by an international civil society alliance.

One of the more “sinister developments” seen today is the “widespread demonization of civil society activists – as terrorists, traitors, foreign puppets, or disconnected elites,” said Civicus’s annual report, The State of Civil Society 2016.

“We need to challenge these narratives, demonstrate the value of civil society and convince people of its worth,” Civicus’s secretary-general Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah said in the foreword.

It is significant that in many cases, protests continued even after initial victories, suggesting a sustained demand for transformation. Continued engagement is often necessary, and the year offered success stories, the report noted:

In Burkina Faso, after ousting the president in 2014, people continued to mobilize, defying an attempted military coup and ushering in a novel era of multi-party politics. In Tunisia, the commitment and sustained engagement of civil society to build peace and democracy, and resist a slide into repression and extremism, was recognized by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet, comprising a human rights organization, a lawyers’ group, a labor union and a trade confederation.

What should be clear by now is that institutions of formal democracy, and the regular holding of elections, are not enough to guarantee civil society rights and people’s participation, the report adds:

In several Sub-Saharan African states, including Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Uganda, increased civic space restriction occurred around elections, even when the iron grip of political leaders made these a formality. Civic space was also diminished by moves to rewrite constitutions to allow incumbent presidents to overturn term limits, seen in Burundi, DRC and Rwanda, as these were accompanied by crackdowns on dissent. …

The restriction of online freedom of expression, including through the targeting of social media commentators and restriction of content, is now a marked trend, seen for example in China, Thailand and Turkey, but also in supposedly mature democracies such as the UK and USA. The trend of restricting the receipt of foreign funding, and slandering CSOs that receive such funding as the agents of foreign powers, has continued, most notably in Russia, to the extent that some CSOs have been forced to close.

Civil society also won important battles, in engaging to improve proposed restrictive laws, campaigning to shame governments into releasing detained activists from jail, as in Azerbaijan, and securing key victories on the freedom of the internet, the report notes:

The restriction of civic space can be seen to have become a mainstream concern of many international CSOs, including those seeking to advance human rights and development. The beginnings of a broad global movement to defend civic space can be discerned. This emerging movement should work more closely together to develop stronger, more accessible messaging about why civic space matters and the roles citizens can play in defending it, engage international processes to foster norms and structures to uphold civic space, and apply these standards at national levels.

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